Why South Korea is a linchpin for all global tech

Key Points
  • South Korea's crucial role in global electronics production is coming under scrutiny amid heightened tensions with North Korea and the U.S. drive to renegotiate trade deals
North Korea's strategy is to drive a wedge between US and South Korea: Korea Society president
North Korea's strategy is to drive a wedge between US and South Korea: Korea Society president

As President Donald Trump threatens to renegotiate trade with Seoul and tensions with North Korea continue to rise, some analysts are pointing out just how crucial South Korea is to global technology.

Soo-Kyoum Kim, program director of the semiconductor research program at research firm IDC, noted last week that South Korea took 17 percent of the global semiconductor market and 64 percent of the memory chip market.

"[If South] Korea is hit by a missile, global key chip supply will stop immediately and all electronics production will stop too," he said.

Of course, a major military conflict in the region would take a toll on tens of millions of lives and see effects well beyond the tech industry.

Still, the recent ratcheting up of tension on the Korean Peninsula has made the question of supply chains something more than just academic.

North Korea claimed a successful hydrogen bomb test on Sunday, with experts saying the magnitude of the resulting earthquake indicated an explosive yield of more than 100 kilotons, compared with the estimated 15 kiloton yield of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations told a Security Council meeting that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was "begging for war."

And Trump on Sunday said North Korea's actions were very "hostile and dangerous" to the U.S. and later responded to a suggestion of an imminent military attack by telling a reporter: "We'll see."

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Others pointed to potential disruptions to the technology supply chain.

In a note from May, Capital Economics noted that South Korea was the biggest producer of liquid crystal displays globally, with a 40 percent market share, and the fourth biggest producer by value added of electronics products.

"If South Korean production was badly damaged by a war there would be shortages across the world. The disruption would last for some time — it takes around two years to build a semi-conductor factory from scratch," economists Gareth Leather and Krystal Tan said in the Capital Economics note.

"Given South Korea's key role as a producer of intermediates, especially in the electronics sector, there would not be enough spare capacity elsewhere in the global economy to compensate for the lost production. Many companies outside of South Korea would be forced to halt production," they added.

Indeed, because many of South Korea's exports are at the beginning of the global supply chain, some economists use the country's trade data as a barometer for the outlook for global trade ahead.

While a potential conflict with North Korea could severely hurt South Korea's trade, a trade spat with the U.S. may not, analysts said.

At the same time that Trump is railing against the North's behavior, he's also beating a drum on concerns about the U.S. free trade agreement with South Korea, known as Korus.

Trump during an April interview with the Washington Post called Korus a "horrible deal" that has "destroyed" his country, and he threatened to terminate it. A report in The Wall Street Journal on Saturday said the Trump administration could serve notice of withdrawal from the pact as early as this week.

Analysts at Citi said in a note on Monday that Trump may use a Korus withdrawal to appeal to his domestic political base. That would be in line with Trump's presidential campaign, which took a protectionist tone.

But Citi said that withdrawing from Korus might not significantly impact South Korea's exports to the U.S.

It pointed to a study by the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade, which argued that the effective tariffs on South Korean manufactured goods might have been even lower without Korus.

Citi added, however, that withdrawing from Korus "should be seen as strategically risky if it erodes U.S.-South Korea alliance and U.S. overall influence in East Asia at a time when China is trying to expand its own."

—CNBC's Javier David contributed to this article.